Hungarian Journalist 'There's More at Stake than Just Freedom of the Press'

Károly Vörös, editor in chief of the Hungarian daily Népszabadság and a vocal critic of the country's new media law, discusses what he describes as a constitutional state that is "systematically dissolving." The worst for journalists, he warns, will come after Hungary's EU presidency.
Media professionalls claim the Hungarian government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, wants to "burn a sense of fear into the souls of journalists."

Media professionalls claim the Hungarian government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, wants to "burn a sense of fear into the souls of journalists."

Foto: Getty Images

SPIEGEL: How does the new media law change your daily work?

Vörös: For the last three weeks, I've been more of a lawyer than an editor in chief. The law is complicated, and every little word is relevant. It's as if the state were trying to dictate to a textile manufacturer that from now on he could only produce red and green but not white underwear.

SPIEGEL: What does it mean for reporting?

Vörös: The law is totally ridiculous. For example, it states that we are to inform our readers "quickly and in a timely manner about local, national and European events." What if we want to write about Africa? Are we not permitted to do so? I will not have someone else dictate to me what is important and what is not. This is a decision for journalists, not for anyone else. We cannot be at the mercy of a government council.

SPIEGEL: The law could also compel you to betray your sources to the authorities if the media council rules that national security is in danger.

Vörös: Yes, it's unbelievable. Nowhere in this law is it explained what exactly endangers national security or what exactly constitutes a crime for which I have to reveal my sources. Does it start with theft? I don't know. The law consists of rubber paragraphs. Everything is worded in vague and general terms.

SPIEGEL: What do you suspect are the motives behind this approach?

Vörös: Either the legislation was fudged to get it passed quickly, or they want the press to operate in a constant state of jeopardy, and to burn a sense of fear into the souls of journalists. It's hard to work under such pressure and with this kind of censorship. It eventually leads to self-censorship.

SPIEGEL: Are you concerned that sources will no longer provide you with sensitive information, out of fear that the authorities could ask for their identities?

Vörös: Of course. People from the intelligence service once sat in my office and asked me where I had obtained certain pieces of information. I asked: "Can you keep this to yourself?" The man replied: "Yes, of course." To which I replied: "Then so can I." Now they can simply search the editorial offices or require me to turn over documents. If I refuse, I can even be punished.

SPIEGEL: Do you fear this is a step back in the direction of socialism?

Vörös: The situation became noticeably more relaxed for journalists in the 1980s, and the press was largely free after the end of the Soviet era. Now we are regressing. There is far more at stake than merely the restriction of freedom of the press. The entire constitutional state is systematically dissolving. The powers of the constitutional court are being restricted, the budget council has been dissolved, and loyal followers are installed in top positions on the audit court or in the Office of the Prosecutor General of Hungary.

SPIEGEL: The Hungarian government says that the media law is in line with the regulations of other European Union countries.

Vörös: They argue differently abroad than they do at home. Abroad they say that if the EU finds errors in the law, they will of course be corrected. In Hungary, however, they say that the law will only be amended if corresponding laws in other EU countries are changed. The entire discussion is absurd. It isn't the government's job to keep the media in check -- it is the media's role to monitor the government. Hungary wants to reverse that.

SPIEGEL: Hungary currently holds the rotating, six-month European Council presidency. Could the law be weakened as a result of the media attention associated with this position?

Vörös: On the contrary. Although the law went into effect at the beginning of the year, the media council cannot impose penalties until July 1. Hungary's European Council presidency ends a day earlier. Apparently this was done to avoid negative press. The real pressure on the media could really get underway at that point.

SPIEGEL: Many Hungarian print publications and TV stations belong to major foreign publishing companies, like Germany's WAZ Group and Axel Springer. Are they fighting forcefully enough for press freedom and against the law?

Vörös: They tend to be withdrawing instead of fighting , even though their business models are at stake. If freedom of the press disappears, the publications will become gray and dull. One can only run a prosperous business with good publications.

Interview conducted by Martin U. Müller
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